Survival of the Fittest: Staying Alive at #LFW

The press releases that flood into industry inboxes at the start of each season’s fashion week are awash with facts and figures. In the case of London this season, there were some impressive numbers: some £27 billion was spent on womenswear in the UK last year, supporting almost 800,000 jobs.

 


Alexander McQueen Fall/Winter 2016 show, London (photography by Guillaume Roujas for NOWFASHION)

 

The jam-packed five-day official schedule includes 51 catwalk shows, and 32 presentations – including big-name returns like Alexander McQueen and Mulberry (featuring the debut of new creative director Johnny Coca). But what was, perhaps, less visible was the roll-call of names which aren’t on the schedule this season. A few weeks ago, Giles Deacon announced the temporary closure of his ready-to-wear line, to allow the label to focus on couture and made-to-order. In December came the news of Jonathan Saunders closing, and the decision of rising star (and LVMH award winner) Thomas Tait to opt out of fashion week. Other notable absentees include Matthew Williamson, Richard Nicoll, and Hunter – the last moving away from the schedule after a series of high-profile, big-budget spectacles over the past few seasons. And those are just the marquee names. Look a little further, and there’s a whole litany of forgotten stars: Avsh Alom Gur, Hannah Marshall, Emma Cook, Louise Gray, Gharani Strok, Clements Ribeiro, Antoni & Alison, Andrew Groves, Eley Kishimoto, Arkadius, Danielle Scutt, Louise Goldin. Of those that have endured, there are of course the headline anchors – Paul Smith, Zandra Rhodes, Paul Costelloe, Margaret Howell, and Vivienne Westwood, each with pedigrees dating back over forty years. There’s a small clutch of Nineties survivors: Preen, Antonio Berardi, Markus Lupfer, Peter Jensen, and PPQ. The rest, for the most part, are comparative newcomers. 

 


Bora Aksu Fall/Winter 2016 ready-to-wear show, London (photography by Guillaume Roujas for NOWFASHION)

 

Having made his LFW debut in 2003, Turkish designer Bora Aksu now finds himself in the unexpected position of being one of the schedule’s most established names. “When I had my first show,” he remembers, “it was six months after my graduation from Central Saint Martins. The whole thing was quite surreal. It was through a sponsorship award I won at my graduation, which provided a show and PR package.” Aksu went on to become one of the many beneficiaries of Topshop’s NEWGEN scheme, a scheme which has supported names as diverse as Erdem, J.W. Anderson, and Mary Katrantzou – and, once upon a time, Alexander McQueen himself. This year, NEWGEN’s line-up is an energetic bunch of remarkably diverse talents – Ashley Williams, Claire Barrow, Danielle Romeril, Faustine Steinmetz, Marta Jakubowski, Molly Goddard, Ryan Lo, and Sadie Williams. But Aksu’s keenly aware of the changes the last decade has wrought upon British fashion, and of the challenges posed to both new and established names by London’s remarkable resurgence. “It’s a very busy schedule now, and a totally different landscape with all the digital changes. So sometimes it can be hard to be heard amongst the crowd. Shows are a small – but very effective – part of the business. But through global online connections, your design language is made instantly available around the world. So being in one of the main fashion capitals gives the right exposure for your brand to be seen.

 


Mimi Wide Fall/Winter 2016 ready-to-wear presentation, London (photography by Gio Staiano for NOWFASHION)

 

Exposure – in many ways, that’s the key to London’s success. It’s the perfect launch pad for radical ideas and new approaches, and it’s long thrived on the spectacle of its youngest stars. The trick, as ever, is following through. Ossie Clark, the city’s first great fashion designer, went from Sixties boy wonder to bankrupt has-been in the space of a decade. John Galliano’s label went bust just a few years into his career, before a lifeline came in the early Nineties in the shape of Givenchy and Dior. And whilst only the fortunate few may ever be in the running for those plum roles at the big international design houses (like J.W. Anderson at Loewe, or David Koma at Mugler), the key for the latest generation seems to be survival through multitasking. New Fashion East star Mimi Wade freelances as an illustrator. Sadie Williams designed a capsule collection for & Other Stories after her graduation, and now sidelines for other fashion labels. And, tempting though it may be to devote all your energies to your own label – especially if you’ve captured the fickle press spotlight for what may be an all-too-brief moment – Wade and Williams’ model may prove in the long run to be an increasingly sensible one.

 


Mulberry Fall/Winter 2016 ready-to-wear show, London (photography by Gio Staiano for NOWFASHION)

 

It’s not all doom and gloom, of course. Beyond those new names there are a clutch of successful accessories and footwear labels – Anya Hindmarch, Sophia Webster, Hill and Friends, Charlotte Olympia, and Mulberry – who are transitioning from single-category success stories into all-around labels, building successful clothing offers around their core businesses. The rise of the web, and in particular of e-shopping, means that brands can go direct to their customer, creating space for entirely different models of success. And let’s not forget good old-fashioned human sentiment and loyalty. “There is a specific customer who follows and loves the brand’s signature style,” Aksu notes. “I think it’s very important for a designer to have their signature – it’s almost like a fingerprint. This was taught [to me] by the legendary Louise Wilson at Central Saint Martins. I see it like a bus journey. Let’s say the route is the design language, but the passengers you take are your influences. While the route never changes, the passengers do.” 

 


Ashish Fall/Winter 2016 ready-to-wear show, London (photography by Guillaume Roujas for NOWFASHION)

 

That’s why press – and customers – still flock to Smith, and Howell, and Westwood. Just as they do, on a smaller scale, to Aksu, and Berardi, and Jensen, and all those names who have navigated the treacherous terrain of modern fashion, and survived. At shows like Ashish, Pam Hogg, or KTZ (another absentee this season, incidentally), the audience’s affection for the designer is palpable. And that human element – not digital streaming, not on-demand instant availability, not more noise – is what fashion needs to remember and retain in order to survive.

 

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